In our Fundraising During Covid-19 online briefing last week, five different fundraising specialists talked about their recent experiences and what organisations should be looking out for in the next 6-12 months. Here are six lessons from the briefing for fundraisers far and wide...
Firstly, a huge thanks to our panel of four external speakers:
1. People are still giving...
The headline news from all our speakers was that, for the most part, people are still donating and fundraising.
Research in May showed that one-third of UK donors were actually donating more than pre-Covid-19. Louisa highlighted the phenomenal success of mass participation virtual events like the 2.6 Challenge. Claire said that while many charities felt uncomfortable talking about legacies in the early months of the pandemic and stopped doing so, the Law Society actually reported a dramatic growth in will writing - potentially an opportunity missed for the sector. Some charities have been working sensitively with executors to speed up legacy payments to help with cash flow problems.
I shared this example of a small family trust that are still giving, and doing what they can to show flexibility and understanding:
They may be facing their own challenges, but funders and donors are also responding to events around them - stories in the news, or experiences of illness or tragedy closer to home - which are often prompts for wanting to support good causes.
2. …but they're also facing new pressures
While people are still giving, many are feeling the strain of the pandemic – financially, emotionally and in terms of time/capacity. With a recession around the corner and dividend income down, some philanthropists may hesitate about donating, and some companies are slashing Corporate Social Responsibility budgets. Trusts and foundations will be dealing with the same logistical challenges as you – staff furloughed, unwell or struggling with childcare, meetings postponed, and technology hiccups.
In such uncertain times, it’s easy to talk yourself out of asking for money at all. This is a mistake. If you don’t ask, you’re denying your funders and supporters an opportunity too, and somebody else will them instead. It’s fine to ask, but be conscious of the challenges people might be experiencing currently, don’t put them under pressure, and listen and respond to feedback.
Contact companies and trusts to check on their current situation before applying, to avoid wasting your time and theirs. Listen carefully to your prospective major donors - as Lottie explained, hearing ‘no’ might not be an absolute rejection, but could just mean no to that amount, no for the next six months, or no to that particular project.
3. Relationships remain crucial, but adapt your approach to building them
Building relationships is one of our seven universal fundraising rules that will never let you down. But developing relationships amid social distancing, and when your time is stretched, is difficult. While it's been a pleasant surprise just how much can be achieved online in recent months, there's no easy substitute for face-to-face interaction when it comes to getting to know supporters or getting introduced to new contacts.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t abandon our attempts to build meaningful relationships. Harpreet told attendees that now is the time to be creative, test new channels, and invest time in ideas and conversations on social media. It could also be a good time to re-examine your lawful basis for getting in touch with your supporters – Harpreet observed that many charities haven’t communicated with some supporters since 2018 because they didn’t give opt-in consent when GDPR came in, but some of these supporters may never have understood why they stopped being contacted. You could explore using ‘legitimate interests’ to get back in touch now.
If cancelled events have freed up budget and staff time, consider investing this in phoning supporters and being more active and visible on social media. Don’t hold off communicating with supporters because you don’t have a specific ask ready. Phone them anyway, even just to ask how they’re doing or to update them on your work. Investing time in relationships now will lead to stronger support and donations tomorrow.
4. Keep externalising your case for support
Drawing on her experience in the arts sector, Lottie observed how many organisations have recently asked for money to ‘keep their doors open’ or avoid laying off staff. Sadly, while this is paramount to you, it's unlikely to be compelling to your donors, unless they’re extremely invested in your organisation.
Donors care about the people you support and the positive impact of your work, not keeping you afloat. So you need to be telling inspiring stories and presenting a clear case for support that explains who you help, why they need support, what you do to meet the need, the impact of your work, and why you’re best placed to achieve change.
Virtually all our speakers highlighted the importance of a good case for support - for funding applications, individual giving campaigns, major donor asks and legacy fundraising. It’s more important than ever during a crisis, with so many organisations competing for donations and emergency funding. One possible negative impact of the recent Government bailouts for the charity sector and the arts is that the general public might mistakenly perceive that charities are now well-funded. The reality is that these bailouts are tiny in the face of rising need, but it’s up to you to make this case to your supporters.
5. Maintain quality and good practice
We asked our speakers to explain what hasn’t changed in fundraising since Covid-19, as well as what has - and it was abundantly clear that good practice doesn’t go out the window when a crisis strikes.
Time and again, our speakers emphasised the importance of doing things the right way, even when there's a sense of urgency. Louisa talked about the need to plan events well in advance and budget very carefully, especially when social distancing might mean your events have to be smaller-scale and less profitable. Claire highlighted the need to maintain common good practice in legacy fundraising: not leading with a scary focus on death, taking a ‘drip drip’ marketing approach, and always respecting donors’ wishes and wellbeing.
It’s easier to keep an emphasis on quality and good practice when you don’t overcommit. For example, you’re likely to make a better impression - and raise more money - if you take the time to write three emergency funding applications well, rather than rushing out eight poor-quality bids.
6. We’re all still figuring things out - so be curious, flexible and kind
Harpreet put it best when she said that right now, fundraisers have to be comfortable not knowing all the answers, as we’re all feeling our way in the dark. This is an unprecedented crisis – nobody really knows what is round the corner, or which fundraising tactics will yield the best response. So I believe we need to do three things:
Be curious - test out new messages and ways of communicating with supporters, before committing significant time and budget to them. Measure and reflect on the results. Monitor what other organisations are doing well, and badly. Ask other fundraisers for advice, and sign up for events where people share observations and best practice.
Be flexible - lockdown restrictions and public mood are liable to change quickly, so be ready to respond. Your Senior Management Team will need to be more agile and get used to signing off ideas more quickly, or your organisation could be left behind.
Be kind - it’s ok to not know what’s round the corner, to make mistakes, and to sometimes just feel overwhelmed and despondent. Equally, Louisa mentioned the importance of celebrating your successes when they come – this keeps you feeling positive, makes the inevitable rejections easier to deal with, and boosts colleagues’ moods too.
I’m sure you saw Andy Murray’s maybe-retirement announcement recently, and the media reaction to it. It was hard to miss.
Aside from the sporting implications, his display of human emotion felt all-too-rare. Most sportspeople give little away beyond guarded responses and cliches, seemingly ever-suspicious of media intrusion and conscious of sponsor obligations. In the often male-dominated world of sport, real emotion and honesty are frequently still associated with weakness. Yet the media response to this fateful press conference in Melbourne was overwhelmingly positive.
I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I’m fascinated by the transformation in Andy Murray's public reputation. Back in his early days, he had a reputation for being surly, bland and seemingly mistrustful of the media. In return, he was firmly portrayed as a Scottish rather than a British sportsperson, not helped when he made his infamous “anyone but England” comments ahead of the football World Cup in 2006!
While much of this transformation is down to sporting success, his personality and honesty have played a part. He’s not afraid to stand up to perceived injustices and voice his views on difficult issues such as gender equality and Scottish independence. And following his recent openness about his physical and mental struggles with injury and pain, his public stock has never been higher.
Watching Andy Murray reminded me just how refreshing, disarming and impactful authentic honesty can be. This is an under-used tool in the charity sector.
Charities are often brilliant at holding up a mirror to society and making people notice and care about injustice. But are we always good enough at holding up a mirror to ourselves? And what holds us back?
When you’re short of time, it can feel easier to present a simple, sanitised version of yourself and your work. Crafting messages about your struggles and weaknesses feels like it must be done carefully. After years of negative media coverage about charities, it's natural to want to present yourself positively: we know exactly what we’re doing, and every penny we spend goes to plan.
I don’t think it always has to be like this. Here are a few ways of showing your more honest side, and why it's worth the time and effort:
1. Show that your work is challenging and things don’t always go to plan
Many projects are complex to deliver. Talking about your setbacks gives people an insight into what your work is really like and makes them more emotionally invested. Think of the narrative of any good film or book - it's rarely plan sailing to the end, and the setbacks draw you into the story.
Great fundraising is often a response to adversity. For example, in 2014, Manchester Dogs' Home raised £1.2million in 48 hours after a devastating fire. Communities rally around organisations in times of crisis, particularly with the rise of crowdfunding. Hopefully you won't experience a disaster, but being honest and open about minor setbacks – for example if you experience a delay or issue with building work after a capital campaign – can help you to raise vital extra funds if needed.
2. Trusts and foundations reward honesty too
It’s not only public fundraising – honesty with funders usually pays too. With the precise focus on outputs and outcomes, we can often feel mortified if we're unable to deliver a project exactly as planned. However most funders are too experienced to expect everything to go as planned. If there's a hitch they’re usually on your side – they want things to go well too, and are often surprisingly willing to help.
I know one charity that's delivering a big six-figure project. They rely heavily on volunteers, but had struggled to find a good volunteer coordinator, and failed to achieve some outcomes as a result. Instead of disguising or finding excuses for this, they explained the situation honestly in their mid-project report. The funder’s response: how much would it cost to increase the hours of your volunteer coordinator post and pay a better salary to find the right person? A top-up grant of £10,000 was on its way a few weeks later.
3. Involve your supporters in decisions that affect them
I often see charities second-guessing how to communicate with their supporters. Would they prefer a monthly or quarterly newsletter? What types of story do they most want to hear about? Will they prefer Event A or Event B? Staff often have differing opinions, but rarely think about actually asking supporters.
Perhaps charities assume their supporters won’t appreciate the question – will they feel the charity should know the answer already, or simply not bother to respond? However, consulting your supporters on important decisions shows a willingness to learn and leads to better engagement and more reliable insights. The real honesty here is asking for advice, and admitting that you don't have all the answers.
4. Handling complaints well is worth its weight in gold
We all make mistakes sometimes, but it's too easy to respond with a weak excuse or with the defence that "we're just following our policy". Have you ever responded to a complaint with: “You know what, no excuses, we just got this wrong”?
Most supporters complain because they care, and want to give you a chance to get things right. They’re not trying to catch you out. They’ll usually understand if you made a mistake because, guess what, they also make mistakes sometimes. A well-written apology and honest explanation actually builds trust and appreciation for what you do - several times I've seen this not only salvage a relationship with a donor, but also lead to increased support.
5. Show the people and personality behind your work
Finally, being honest is also about showing what your work is really like – even if you look stressed, your desk is messy and your office is cramped! Showing the real you leads to empathy and familiarity more than judgement or criticism, in my experience.
In my first job in the sector, I ran a major student fundraising event. We frequently tried to post photos on social media of us sending out welcome packs, taking deliveries of T-shirts or welcoming new staff. Our fundraisers genuinely liked this – for some reason, most seemed to think we were running the event out of a broom cupboard, and were amazed that the charity had a ‘normal’ office! It helped people to get to know us and appreciate that we were a professional organisation doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
So thank you Andy Murray for the reminder about the power of honesty - and if you've got any other tips or stories about putting this into practice with your supporters or donors, we'd love a comment below!
I had a lovely trusts and foundations blog planned for this week. I really did. But it’s going on hold for a few weeks, because I’ve been bitten by the World Cup bug.
I’ve been a football fan since around 1994 (more on that later). However, for perhaps the first time, I didn’t feel too excited during the build-up to this World Cup. A combination of England’s seemingly bleak prospects and the questionable ethics of hosting the tournament in Russia left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Then the first ball was kicked and I've been captivated again - from the novelty of catching a few minutes of Portugal v Morocco at lunchtime to the joys of watching flamboyant surprise packages like Mexico and Senegal, and of course the typical emotional rollercoaster of an England game.
Amid the drama and entertainment, there are also a few handy lessons to be learned by fundraisers and charities:
Pride and motivation go a long way
Hands up if you predicted that Russia would be the top goalscorers and best entertainers so far?
Going into the tournament, there was a general sense that Russia had picked an incredibly bad time to assemble a weak squad. Nobody – including many Russian pundits – was talking about how far they could progress, only hoping that they wouldn’t embarrass the host nation.
In their first game, Russia put five past Saudi Arabia, before a stylish 3-1 win over Egypt on Tuesday. A seemingly ordinary team have thrived in the spotlight and been transformed in front of thousands of partisan home fans.
You probably can't find thousands of Russians to cheer on your fundraising team (and it might be a bit distracting anyway). But creating the right circumstances for people to thrive, and feel confident and comfortable in their work, is just as important as having skilled staff. If you can do more to make your team feel proud of their work, motivated to do a great job and clear about the end goal, they might be able to achieve more than you expect.
You can also punch above your weight if you play to your strengths and develop a clear plan
Russia aren’t the only team to raise eyebrows so far. Mexico secured a famous 1-0 victory over Germany, while Iceland claimed their latest scalp with a gutsy 1-1 draw with Argentina.
These two performances had something in common – both teams worked incredibly hard as a unit and had a clear gameplan, focused on playing to their own strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent.
This is also the key principle of a good fundraising strategy. You don’t need to be brilliant at everything to raise the money you need – just identify a few things that you do well, create a clear plan for maximising your return in those areas, and explain to everyone how they can play a part in getting it done.
Appropriately enough, this week is Small Charity Week – so an ideal time to celebrate the power of punching above your weight.
The power of a shared cause and dream
Even in the modern day of mega-rich football club owners and eye-wateringly big TV deals, it's still the fans that really light up any World Cup. I love the atmosphere and the colour, and seeing the passion of people who travel thousands of miles to watch their team. How many other events inspire people to give up their jobs and sell their possessions so they can be there?
Football fans are united by a sense of shared identity and a collective dream - and charities can tap into a similar feeling. People don’t support your cause because of who you are, or what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. If you can articulate a clear vision, people will remember you and feel inspired to support your work – whether you’re trying to cure cancer, end child cruelty or make your local area a safer and better place.
Be willing to embrace change
A big talking point at this World Cup has been the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referees). In an attempt to reduce refereeing mistakes, certain key decisions are now referred to professional referees in a TV studio, who can review the incident from multiple angles and recommend that a referee overturns their decision.
VAR was first trialled in the UK during cup competitions last season, and was widely ridiculed. It caused long delays in play, confusion for fans in the stadium and on TV, and still got many decisions wrong. However, the system has quickly improved – while still not perfect, it’s already resulted in many correct decisions about penalties and goals at the World Cup, and is gradually being accepted as a positive development in the game.
The lesson is clear – when you try to make changes, particularly involving new technology, you’ll often face teething problems and encounter resistance. For charities, this often comes from donors, staff and trustees.
Trying to introduce a new CRM, run your first crowdfunding campaign or dabble in virtual reality technology is unlikely to be a pain-free experience. But people may change their views quicker than you expect, and you'll benefit from taking the time to iron out problems. In 6-12 months, you'll probably be glad you pushed through the change.
Tastes change over time
While I’ve been rapidly sucked into this World Cup, I haven’t always been a football fan. My first distant World Cup memories are from USA 1994, but they're not good memories. Apparently I came home from school, turned on the TV to watch my usual cartoon, found it'd been cancelled for the football, and threw a tantrum.
My parents like to remind me that I spent the next few hours sulking and cursing “stupid football”. I’m not sure what happened next, but by Euro 1996 I was a total convert, screaming the house down as we thrashed the Netherlands 4-1 at Wembley – one of my favourite football memories.
People’s tastes and circumstances change over time, and fundraisers need to stay on top of that. A student volunteer might not be in a position to donate to your work now, but may feel totally differently after five years in their graduate job. Your major donor might gradually lose interest in Project A, but start to really value the impact of Project B over time. Event trends come and go out of fashion, often leaving you scratching your head.
That’s why it’s so important to keep building genuine relationships with your supporters, recording what you learn from conversations about their interests, and developing personalised asks to match. This will help you develop a more engaged supporter base, and ultimately raise more money for your work.
But that's a job for tomorrow. Tonight you need to get home in time for Argentina v Croatia at 7pm - it's going to be a cracking game.
It’s tempting to think that the recent fundraising crisis came out of nowhere – that public resentment was just whipped up by the media and a few horror stories – but the reality is different.
Frustration and dissatisfaction had actually been simmering away for a long time. In 2016, nfpSynergy reported that the charity sector had one of the lowest complaint rates across seven sectors, but the highest level of people wanting to complain but not doing so. Given that the other sectors included pensions, mortgages and broadband providers, that’s a sobering statistic.
So why have people been growing increasingly unhappy with charities? Specific cases of bad practice haven’t helped, but I think there’s a broader issue.
Most of our public fundraising methods seem to rely on interrupting – rather than complementing – our everyday lives. We get stopped in the street. People knock on our doors. Charity appeals pop up on TV and through our letterboxes.
In a world marred by spending cuts and growing inequality, this may feel inevitable. More and more people are being denied happy and healthy lives, and charities are stepping in to pick up the slack. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if these fundraising methods work and people have the money to donate, what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, many fundraising methods seem incompatible with a changing society. Digital technology has given people an unprecedented level of choice and flexibility. We stream music that we want to listen to, instead of sitting through songs we don’t like on the radio. We watch our favourite programmes on catch up TV, rather than 'seeing what’s on'.
We increasingly live in our own bubble where we do things on our own terms. So when we perceive that we’re being interrupted unnecessarily – whether by a company, a charity or an individual – we often feel harassed or angry.
So street, door-to-door and television fundraising – while hugely successful financially, particularly for household name charities – are often negative experiences for the public, stirring up feelings of pressure and guilt.
I’m not saying that 'traditional' forms of fundraising are fundamentally wrong, or that negative media coverage is always justified. However, in these tough times, many charities need to raise increasing amounts from the public to keep supporting their beneficiaries. For this to be sustainable, we need to be more creative and varied in our fundraising efforts.
A popular buzzword today is ‘disruption’ – the concept (originating in Silicon Valley) of smaller companies unseating market leaders in an industry with an innovative or simpler solution. But when it comes to fundraising, perhaps the most effective form of ‘disruption' is actually to be as non-disruptive as possible.
We need to find more ways to fundraise that fit in with or add value to people’s lives, rather than interrupting them.
I’ve seen a few great examples recently – and while many are being implemented by large charities, there’s plenty that the whole sector can learn:
1. Rounding up in shops
Recently, staff in my local Tesco in Bristol were fundraising for Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation. To support their efforts, Tesco added a prompt to their self-service machines asking customers to make a small donation to round up their bills:
Over about a month, I must have donated ten times (I’m not a very strategic shopper, and Tesco is a one-minute walk around the corner). Never more than 10p – but with so many customers and transactions, you can imagine how this small but frequent giving can add up.
While this did involve adding an extra screen to the self-service process, I could choose to donate or decline within two seconds. It didn’t feel obtrusive at all, and there was no awkwardness in saying no. Many people will have supported two charities that they might not have thought of giving to before.
Smaller charities may find it near-impossible to forge a partnership with a major supermarket. However that doesn’t stop you approaching local shops or restaurants about a similar arrangement, or applying to supermarket community schemes like Waitrose’s green token scheme. You can also look at joining nationwide schemes like Pennies.
2. Good old-fashioned community fundraising
Community fundraising is brilliant because it performs a social function as well as raising money. It's something positive to do and provides an opportunity to meet new people, which can be really important for some.
While most people immediately think of the Macmillan Coffee Morning – which raises almost £30million annually – personally I love Mind’s Crafternoon fundraiser. This promotes mental health and mindfulness, while encouraging people to come together and focus on making something.
Any charity – no matter what size – can design an attractive community fundraising idea for their own supporters, whether that means a database of a thousand people or a small group of friends and family.
The key is to develop your idea in consultation with your target audience, start small, gather feedback and gradually scale it up. Ultimately, community fundraising works best when it's led by volunteers, with minimal input and support from paid staff.
3. Social media collaboration
Building an audience for fundraising is tough for smaller charities, so getting a leg-up makes a huge difference.
I’ve always loved this example of how the popular Humans of New York photoblog raised over $100,000 in less than an hour, by combining a powerful ask for a local cause with an inspiring story. Founder Brandon Stanton had already built a huge audience that enjoyed glimpsing other people’s lives and hearing their stories, so appealing for help was a logical next step.
Winning the trust of an audience that are already passionate about something, and making a related ask on the platform they already use, is another great way of weaving fundraising into the fabric of everyday life.
Building a relationship with - for example - a blogger or YouTube star isn’t easy, but might be a better bet than approaching major companies, particularly if there’s a reason why they’d support your cause. Try looking out for rising stars and make contact with them before they hit the big time.
Ever been through Stockholm Airport and seen these charity arcade machines?
I love this for two reasons. Firstly, it takes something that’s already popular and adds a fundraising twist. If people like arcade machines in airports, why wouldn’t they love using them for a good cause?
Secondly, this is a brilliant example of the gamification of fundraising. This increasing trend uses games, challenges and adventures to give people an added incentive to support a cause – and it really works.
You’ll probably struggle to get arcade machines placed in major airports. However, you can still use this as inspiration: can you ‘gamify’ any of your existing fundraising efforts, or add a fundraising twist to something your local supporters already enjoy doing?
5. Making donating easy
When people decide they want to donate to you – no matter how or where – it’s not the end of the story. The physical act of donating has to be intuitive and convenient – if it’s too complicated, you’ll lose donors.
As technology moves on, people expect the organisations they interact with to keep pace. The use of contactless cards is booming – contactless payments now account for a third of all card purchases, up from 10% just two years ago. Cash is a fading force, and charities are losing out by still relying too much on it – by as much as £80million per year, according to this report.
It’s worth exploring options now for taking card and contactless payments, as the cost and barriers to entry will continue to come down for smaller charities. Also, make sure your donation and registration forms (both online and paper) are as simple as possible.
How do you ‘sell’ your cause to people?
If you find yourself talking to someone about your charity in the pub or at the school gates, what do you tell them? Do you trot out your vision and mission statement, and those inevitable bullet points describing your main services? Is there a particular story you always tell?
I’ve been involved with many charities as a fundraiser, consultant, mentor and trustee. If you work for one of these organisations then you might want to look away now. Sorry, but when I tell someone about what your charity does, I rarely use your carefully crafted marketing language.
The unavoidable reality is that many causes are hard to explain, particularly in these times of austerity. Multiple disadvantage, multiple services for one beneficiary group, or one particular issue that affects multiple groups.
It’s often tricky to distil this into one concise, meaningful description. That bullet point list might sound ok on paper but it’s instantly forgettable when recited verbally. Staying 'on brand' can sound a bit…bland.
I think there’s a better way to engage people in what you do. Stop trying to tell them everything, and instead look for your ‘diamond in the detail’.
All the charities I really ‘click’ with and enjoy talking about have something in common. Amidst all their services, statistics and slogans, I’ve found a particular thing that for me really captures why they do what they do.
Often this is a beneficiary story, but it could just be a concept or an idea that’s easy to understand and memorise. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
I spent five years at Link Community Development, a charity working to ensure children in sub-Saharan Africa receive a meaningful education. Link provides teacher training, quality assessments of schools and helps headteachers and district authorities to run schools better. The Millennium Development Goals focused on getting children into school but not what happened when they were there. So Link’s work was vital, but not very ‘sexy’.
Over time, by speaking to teachers and parents in South Africa and Malawi, I understood things better. Children growing up in countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS don’t miss school because they don’t want to be there. They stay at home to look after sick relatives, or work the land to earn money for their family because their parents are no longer with them.
Many people see children not attending school as the biggest problem. But for me, the burning injustice is encouraging children to walk five miles to school because it’s ‘the right thing to do’, meaning they can't perform a critical role in their families, then failing to provide them with an education that makes any difference when they get there.
This was my ‘diamond’ for explaining why Link’s work was so important. As a problem that urgently needed fixing, it meant so much more than saying ‘Link works in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa doing X, Y and Z to improve the quality of education in schools.’
I’m currently working with a very different charity called The Camden Society, who provide a range of services to people with a learning disability. Among other things, this includes supported living, employment and health and wellbeing.
But if you ask me about The Camden Society, this isn’t what I’ll tell you. Instead I’ll talk about their amazing apprenticeship programme, helping to arrange job trials for people who would otherwise lack the core skills to secure a role in the catering industry.
I’ll tell you about the apprentice I heard speak who knew he would never shine in a formal interview, but proved in a trial that he could prepare food more quickly than any of the regular staff. He secured a job where he could thrive and feel proud of his skills, and he’s not looked back since.
This is just one aspect of the charity's work, but it's the one I feel most comfortable and passionate talking about.
You don’t need to talk about the whole of what your charity does, or even focus on your main project. By finding your own ‘diamond in the detail’, you'll be able to explain things with more belief and passion. Crucially, this diamond may be different for every staff member or volunteer.
I've heard people find their own engaging ways to talk about their charity, only to be told that it's not on brand - which I think is a real shame.
It can be helpful to think of your charity as a cube. There are many sides to what you do. People can only see one or two sides at any one time, but those sides are still part of the whole shape.
Ultimately, is it better to give someone a concise and complete summary of what you do and hope they remember it? Or tell them one specific memorable thing that can be a ‘hook’ for finding out more later?
You might be willing to try this approach when talking to family and friends, but I’m convinced it can be just as effective with donors, funders or companies. So isn’t it time you found your diamond in the detail?
What particular diamond works best for your cause? Do you have some different advice for engaging people? We’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment below.
“We really want to create the next Ice Bucket Challenge / No Makeup Selfie / <insert high-profile viral campaign here>.”
In my experience, this is one of the most common aspirations voiced by well-meaning staff and trustees. But here's the truth: almost every attempt to emulate this kind of campaign is destined to fail. It's not just that creating a viral campaign in such a busy market is difficult. It's that most people miss the very thing that makes these campaigns successful in the first place.
The best campaigns aren’t dreamed up in a boardroom or on flipchart paper. They begin organically - someone shares a personal update which resonates with a few other people who share it. If it's simple, seems genuine and, crucially, doesn’t have any obvious branding or marketing message, then it might gain traction from there.
It’s the organic messages, the simple supporter stories that aren’t put through a brand filter, that really have the potential to capture people's imaginations. So when charities are eager to raise awareness about their organisation and “get their message out there”, all too often they manage to achieve the complete opposite.
Of course, I understand the urge to tell your message and story in your own voice. It's definitely a trap I’ve fallen into myself. Particularly for small charities, the chance to shine in the public eye is all too rare. So if you ever get an opportunity, you feel the need to “polish” your message as much as possible. If you’re anxious about measuring the return on your efforts, you're naturally keen to link to your website, ask for a direct donation etc. The problem is, it very rarely works.
When your clever marketing people - or staff with expert knowledge of your work - get their hands on your message, they can inadvertently make it sound much drier, and strip away that all-important authenticity.
Most people aren't actually very passionate about specific charities, they're excited by causes and by stories of the people they want to help.
So when you try to reframe your message using the words that matter to you, and put your charity front and centre, you usually miss out on those all-important shares as a result.
A couple of weeks ago I went to SOFII's I Wish I Thought of That, an annual event where 17 experts showcase the best and most inspiring fundraising campaign they wish they'd come up with. This year, one theme kept popping up again and again – charities can really gain from being braver about taking a backseat, instead letting the people they help 'own' their own voice.
One amazing example of this is Emmy and Jake’s tandem fundraising challenge for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. When Emmy Collett received the heartbreaking news that she had thyroid cancer, she embarked on a 2000km tandem cycling challenge with her childhood sweetheart Jake.
Their poignant, inspiring and authentic personal story quickly gained publicity, but The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity made a conscious decision to remain in the background and let the young couple speak freely to the media and ‘own’ their story. People wanted to give these two amazing people, but it was the charity that really gained - to date, Emmy and Jake have raised over £100,000.
And this wasn't a one-off, as shown by the unique fundraising efforts of Paul Trueman, inspired by a hard-hitting domestic abuse storyline in BBC Radio’s long-standing The Archers:
This unique fundraising campaign – using a fictional storyline to highlight the plight of real women – captured the imagination and empathy of the public. Refuge, the beneficiary charity, could have jumped on this and taken the opportunity to tell their organisational story, sell their work and 'polish up' the message. Instead, like Royal Marsden, they trusted the creator of the story to be its best ambassador. £170,000 later, it seems like a pretty good decision.
Christmas 2016 provided some great inspiration too.
The festive adverts were a great reminder of the power of storytelling, lingering longer in our minds than the leftover turkey. We’re all familiar with the heart-warming Christmas advert stories by John Lewis and Sainsbury’s – but have you stopped to think about how little the companies feature in their own adverts? By deliberately staying out the limelight, they make their adverts feel less 'salesy' and more authentic, so people are far more likely to share them.
My favourite Christmas 2016 advert actually came from Poland, in the form of this lovely tale about a man learning English so he can visit his new family:
It’s been viewed nearly 13 million times and widely shared by countless people have fallen in love with the simple, human story. The people behind it, an online auction company called Allegro, barely feature in it at all – yet they’ve gained loads of column inches and seen a big spike in searches and website hits as a result.
So why not enlist others to help tell our stories?
In today's world of spontaneous online interactions, I think that too many charities underestimate how well others can tell their story for them.
I was listening to a social media expert answer questions from charities recently and one of her answers really stuck with me. She was asked how to balance the need to be nimble and react quickly on social media with the need to have ‘brand control’ and sign-off procedures for less experienced staff.
Her view was simple: when you take on new staff, they automatically become your ambassadors. You trust them to represent your organisation to their friends and family, to talk about you at parties, in the pub, or over a cup of coffee, and often this leads to really useful introductions – so why not do it online?
As you consider your New Year’s Resolutions for 2017, do you think your organisation is brave enough to take a step back and let your supporters tell their own story too?
This undoubtedly requires courage, faith in the people who represent you, and a willingness to relinquish control. But get it right, and maybe someday people will be talking about your viral campaign and wondering how they could replicate it.
Christmas – there’s nothing quite like it, is there?
I’ve never quite lost the sense of magic and exhilaration I used to feel as a child. I barely slept on Christmas Eve, lying awake for hours every year, way too excited to even stay still.
It wasn’t the anticipation of presents, more the prospect of just seeing Father Christmas in action, with his sack of presents over his shoulder. I'd read so many magical Christmas stories and watched so many films that it all seemed so real, and I was desperate to see it for myself.
I devised creative ways to ensure that I didn’t sleep through the magical moment. I remember one year trying to booby trap my bedroom, hoping he’d make enough noise to wake me up. But my parents were always one step ahead of me and equally creative in their excuses. “Father Christmas said he left your presents outside your door this year because he was running late and in a hurry.”
Christmas always brings festive nostalgia and is a great reminder of the power of storytelling. Stories have a huge impact on adults and children alike. A good story burns an image onto our brain and changes the way that we communicate and behave.
Many companies are brilliant at exploiting this. The John Lewis Christmas advert feels like the official opening ceremony for the festive period these days. Sainsbury’s attracted attention last year with their World War I themed advert. In many adverts, the product is barely mentioned. It’s all about the story and how it makes you feel. This love story about milk bottles may be the ultimate example:
Charities are increasingly harnessing the power of storytelling to stand out in a world where there are thousands of good causes competing for our donations and attention.
As charities, we enjoy the natural advantage of having powerful and inspiring stories to tell. We support people who battle against personal challenges, often showing huge courage in the face of adversity. Our heroic supporters dedicate their time, energy and creativity to volunteering and quirky fundraising efforts.
Telling a story is a great way of explaining your vision of a better world and what needs to change. Stories are memorable and easy for your supporters to share with others, and they motivate staff and volunteers. In a world where we are more interconnected than ever, this is really powerful.
A great example is the remarkable story of Stephen Sutton, who turned his battle with cancer into a £4million fundraising effort for Teenage Cancer Trust. Stephen’s personal story inspired millions of people to take action in a way that no statistic or charity newsletter could have done.
Given the wealth of good material at our fingertips, shouldn’t we be better at using stories to inspire our supporters and share our messages?
Here are six top tips for telling your own powerful stories:
1. Delve deep into your organisation – trustees and senior management don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. The best stories are unlikely to emerge from your boardroom. You need to engage project staff, volunteers, beneficiaries and fundraisers. This is a great way to find authentic content and engage everybody from top to bottom in the task of finding the story that best represents your cause.
2. Keep it positive – evidence shows that people are tired of ‘traditional’ charity appeals about suffering and pain. Increasingly we must deal in hope, change and happy endings. If you’re looking for inspiration then I’m proud to be an ambassador for Good News Shared, a website which shares brilliant stories that showcase the positive and inspiring work done by charities and social enterprises.
3. Faces not figures – a personal story is always more memorable than even a powerful statistic. Make your story about one inspiring individual and include photos and background information to make it feel more authentic.
4. Mix your media – no matter how good the story, too much text will always put people off. We live in a world full of videos, audio books and infographics, and organisations are finding ever more creative ways to share their content. So keep the text to a minimum, use plenty of vivid images and try creating a video of your story – it doesn't have to be professionally produced to be engaging.
5. Make it easy to share – why do all the hard work yourself? Every person has the potential to spread the word to others. You never know who may mention you to a company, trust or high value donor. Encourage supporters to share your stories by making them clear, memorable, short and bursting with pride.
6. What next? Don’t leave your supporters wondering what they can do to help. Finish with a clear call to action – this could be a request to donate a certain amount, sign up to an event or share the story on social media.
Stories are a great ‘leveller’ for smaller charities. You may not have the budget for that expensive marketing campaign or fundraising app, but your stories cost nothing to find and little to share. This is a golden opportunity, so don’t pass it up.
If you’d like some more practical tools for sharing your story, check out this blog by Nisha Kotecha. Nisha is the Founder of Good News Shared and is even more passionate than me about the power of a good story!
This blog is adapted from a blog that we first published in December 2014. Storytelling remains a much-discussed topic in the charity sector, so we felt that it was time to share some updated advice with you.
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